MACE 13 – General Review, Part 1

I’ve thought a lot about how I want my report from this year’s MACE to go, and have finally come up with a plan.  I’m breaking my general overview of the weekend up into two parts, where I’ll talk a little bit about everything I did at MACE and give my summary of how it went.  Over the next few weeks, I also plan to give some detailed reports/reviews of the stuff that was most interesting to me, so keep an eye out for more entries soon.

Anyway, this was the 13th year for MACE, and by my reckoning, it was the 7th one that I’ve attended.  Last year was significantly down in terms of attendance and, being surely related, excitement level.  I am overjoyed to report, however, that 2009 was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) years both for attendance and number of active games.  I had an absolutely fantastic time, and overall, it was probably the best time that I’ve ever had at a convention!  The only real disappointment about the weekend was that my brother Tony was unable to come for the second year in a row.  

So, let’s start with what I did:

Friday Afternoon

Things started out a little sour (thankfully, they got a lot better), mainly because of hotel issues.  The facility changed hands from Raddisson to Best Western since the last MACE, and I don’t know if that had something to do with my issues or if it was just bad luck.  But every other year, I’ve been able to arrive as early as I wanted to (usually just after lunch) and check right in to my room.  This year, my room still wasn’t ready by the time that the first gaming session started at 3pm, which both frustrated me and caused stress later on when I had to check in between sessions.  The one cool thing about the wait was that during the 3rd (of 5) times I waited in line to check on my room, I was able to introduce myself to Ron Blessing (of The Game’s The Thing and Pulp Gamer podcasting fame) and his wife Veronica.  And thankfully, that wasn’t the last chance I had to interact with him over the convention.

I used some of my spare time to browse through the dealer’s room while it was being set up, and ended up buying Castle Panic based on the recommendation of the recent Boardgames With Scott episode.  Of course, then I had yet another thing to tote around and keep an eye on until I could get into my room…

Friday 3p-7p Session: Savage Worlds (Fantasy)

There weren’t a ton of games offered during the first session that really excited me, but I knew that I wanted to try out Savage Worlds sometime over the weekend, and so this seemed like a good opportunity.  The GM was Mark, and he was running an adaptation of a D&D adventure.  While I’ve owned the Explorer’s Edition book for a while, I hadn’t got around to reading it, so I was learning the system as we played.  Mark did a great job of explaining things and even gave all of us a laminated reference sheet to keep, and he was very entertaining in how he played the NPC’s and ran the game.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that the setting or adventure itself really showed off what Savage Worlds is supposed to be good at.  Maybe I’m wrong about this, but the adventure was all about tactical combat, and personally, I think that D&D 3.5 would have done it better. 

So, my first experience with Savage Worlds wasn’t really bad, but just a little “meh”.  Despite this, I actually picked up the Necessary Evil Explorer’s Edition book over the weekend, and I have to say that it’s one of the coolest settings that I’ve ever read.  I can see some of the attraction of having a “universal” system like SW, and maybe I just need to get some play in with more pulpy and/or fantastic settings to see it shine.

Friday 8p-Midnight Session: A Penny For My Thoughts

After finally getting into my room, going back out to my car and grabbing the rest of my stuff, and catching a bite to eat at the awesome Grinning Goblin snack bar (run by the con staff), I set up for the first game I was running, Paul Tevis’ A Penny For My Thougts.  Initially, I only had one person signed up, but a few more saw the book and bowl of pennies on the table and jumped in as well.  And so in the end, my table was full of experienced story gamers and veritable luminaries of the RPG world.  Specifically, joining me were Nicholas Marshall, Ron Blessing, Eloy Lasanta, and Andy Kitkowski (of the Story Games community). 

None of us had played before, so I read the instructions aloud as we went through the game.  Now, that’s not as bad as you might normally think, because the book is actually written specifically for that purpose.  It speaks in the voice of a doctor at the Orphic Institute For Advanced Studies, where we are all being treated with an experimental drug for our global, retrograde amnesia.  And througout the treatment process, we all learned that we weren’t very nice people.

Now, this is one of the games that I plan to write a lot more detail about, so my comments here will be brief and simple.  All of us (even the more experienced story-gamers) struggled at times to develop our stories and serve as guides.  However, we all had a really good time doing it.  And some of the stories were very cool and, at times, powerful.  A Penny For My Thoughts was everything that I’d hoped it would be, and I hope that I get more of an opportunity soon to strenghten the creative muscles that it uses.

I then headed up to my room and broke out Castle Panic for a solo learning game.  I got slaughtered, but had a pretty good time doing so.

Saturday 9a-1p Session: Pickup Boardgaming

I was supposed to run a game of Fury of Dracula first thing on Saturday, but no one signed up.  I went through the motions of setting it up and having it ready in hopes that I could entice a few players over, but when I saw a game of Pandemic being set up shortly after 9 o’clock, I asked to join in.


We had four players in the game of Pandemic: Bret and Jacqueline (brother and sister), Jeff, and me (of course).  Jeff had never played before, so we went through the rules and picked our roles.  Since I didn’t do the set up, I didn’t realize until we were well into the game that we were playing on Heroic (6-epidemic) level, and we ended up getting utterly destroyed.  We actually re-set (this time with 5 epidemics) and ended up playing 2 more games back-to-back, but the eventual results were all the same.  Apparently, the world was either doomed to die on Saturday morning, or at least, it shouldn’t have been entrusted to our incapable hands.

Bret then pulled out The Downfall of Pompeii and again taught the rules to Jeff.  I had played once before, but it was nice to get a refresher on the rules as well.  Anyway, I think that some mistake was made in the deck setup, because the second eruption card came up way sooner than it should have.  I managed to get the most people into and then out of the city, however, and ended up winning by one point over Jeff.

Jacqueline then stepped out to allow another new player, Rick, to give it a try.  This time, the game developed quite a bit more before the lava showed up, and there were a lot more hard choices to make in the late game.  Jeff and Rick got a lot more people onto the board because of the “relatives” rule, but I still made it pretty close in the end (getting 8 people out of Pompeii).  Jeff, however, took the game by getting 9 people out and only having 5 in the volcano, while Rick got 9 out but had 10 consumed by the lava.

I’m pretty ambivalent about The Downfall of Pompeii.  I like the theme and basic gameplay, but for such an abstract game, the influence of the cards during the “relatives” phase seems to be pretty overwhelming.  If you draw the right cards at the right times to place into nearly-full buildings, you will have a lot more people on the board.  And yes, that means you’ll also have lots more that can end up in the volcano, but that’s only a tiebreaker in the end.  I probably need to give it some more attention, but I doubt that I’ll add it to my wishlist right yet.


After that game, I decided to walk around a bit.  One really cool thing about this year’s convention was that Billy Stevens, founder of the U.S. Carrom Association and Vice-President of the International Carrom Federation (and local Durham native), was there with a couple of tournament-level Carrom boards.  He taught tons of people how to play “real” carrom throughout the weekend and had some to sell as well (he owns Billiboards, a company that imports boards and supplies). 

I played a few of games with him and others throughout the day on Saturday, and had an absolute blast!  It is very similar to pool, but is frankly a lot harder.  Some of the physics and geometry of the game work differently than pool, and getting the striker to go where you want is a lot harder than using a cue.  Carrom is something that I could really get interested in, and I hope that Billy is a regular presence at MACE for long time.

Saturday 1:30-5:30p Session: Primetime Adventures

I struggled with whether to play in this game or to go with a game of Jason Morningstar’s upcoming game Fiasco (which I was able to playtest last year), but went with PTA in the end because it had been longer since I’d played it.  Jeffrey Collyer ran this session, and he’s very experienced at running con games with PTA.  Also joining us was Andy Kitkowski, Nick, David, Dianna, and Tom Gurganus.  I was really glad to finally meet Tom in person, especially after communicating with him here at and on BGG (and hearing him voluminous feedback for Pulp Gamer and other podcasts).  

Anyway, we agreed to play out the pitch session and pilot for our show, and threw out a few of our TV preferences.  When it came to actual pitches for the premise, David came up with an idea that immediately caught all of our attention.  Basically, the setting was the near future (2014 in Raleigh, NC), and our society was on the brink of collapse.  We considered including Sci Fi or occult influences in the downfall, but in the end decided to keep things “real” in terms of just economic and social pressures leading to the decay.  We would play a team of volunteer “first responders” trying to beat back the anarchy and keep our little corner of society held together.

Tom was playing Larry Anderson, one of the few remaining honest cops, Andy was Jenks, a military deserter that had gotten tied up with organized crime, Dianna was Jessica Willis, an ambitious reporter with a serious drug problem, Nick was Doc Roche, a street surgeon with a drinking problem and a death wish, David was Fahir Al’Ashi, a no-nonsense Muslim cab driver, and I was Perry Andrews, a disillusioned pacifist minister working as the chaplain at the state prison.

The episode opened up with Jenks receiving a shipment of drugs from up north on behalf of Big Eddie, the local crime lord. After confirming that the shipment was correct, he shot the currier in the back and left him for dead. Jessica showed up just then and threatened to turn him in, but instead agreed to keep it quiet for a cut of the drugs. Jessica was set up with her cameraman filming as Officer Anderson and I arrived to investigate the scene.

Later, Jenks was called in by Big Eddie to question him about how the shipment went down and to get his money back. We found out that the only reason Jenks was working for him was that Big Eddie had found out about Jenks being a deserter, and was blackmailing him with the threat of turning him in.

Officer Anderson and Jessica discovered the body of her cameraman near to her news van later that evening as well. And there beside it, as the apparent murder weapon, was Jenks’ gun.

Meanwhile, Fahir had been trying to convince a group of radicals within the Muslim community to leave Doc Roche alone. The Doc had responded not long ago to the shooting of the local Imam, and had been unable to save him. Many in the community blamed him for the death, claiming that he intentionally allowed the holy man to die, and perhaps even caused the death himself. Fahir and I (Reverend Andrews) then went to Doc Roche’s home and tried to convince him that he needed to sober up and come with us for protection. Just then, an unmarked van drove up outside and a gang o
f Muslim youths started getting out. Fahir ended up facing off with him, shotgun hanging at his side, and intimidated them into standing down for the time being.

Just then, the big event of the episode happened. Our cell of first responders was called to a local grocery store, where a community of starving families had invaded with someone being shot in the process. When we all arrived, the police chief was setting up a perimeter (with the scant resources he had available), and Officer Anderson was told to take a sniper rifle and get onto a roof. Seeing the scared faces of the families in the store and fearing the violence that was a seeming inevitability, I turned and began walking towards the front of the store. When I got there, I knocked on the glass door and asked to see whoever was in charge.

Soon, I negotiated with them to let Doc Roche in to see about whoever had been wounded. He was taken back to the office, where the Muslim shopkeeper lay bleeding with his wife weeping over him. Doc knelt beside him and tried to get to work, but struggled to sober up and deal with the demons of his past. Flashbacks of working on the Imam paralyzed him, and as the shopkeeper’s wife pleaded with and threatened him, all he could do was break down, weeping into his hands.

Out front, I could feel the tension mounting. Jenks was preparing to breach the building and handle matters however he could. So I then confronted the group of starving families and their teenage leader, convincing them that continuing this act was hopeless and would only result in more of them, and possibly others, getting killed. Their will broke, and they soon walked out peacefully. In the end, only the shooter was arrested, and the community was shown that peace and order still had a place in our world.

The credits rolled and we had “next time on”, then we all sat back for a little review of the episode. Universally, we all agreed that this was a show we’d love to actually watch. I had a really great time, but similar to how I did last time, I felt like I had some issues with making my character fit in with the rest of the cast. My character was interesting to me, but most of his issues were more internal in nature, which made them hard to find his place in the interpersonal character drama that PTA does so well. I need to keep that in mind the next time I play.

Speaking of that, playing PTA again has made me realize even more how desperately I need to get at least a 5-episode season played locally sometime soon. It’s such a great game, and the stories it generates can be so fun and compelling (which hopefully comes across a little in this report).

And that will be enough for part 1.  Hopefully part 2 will come soon…